All fall down
Europe this week began celebrating the centenary of the death of the French writer Emile Zola, which occurs on September 28.
Like the good-hearted buffoon in Ephraim Kishon's film "Blaumlich's Canal," who decided to lay waste the center of Tel Aviv with the help of a deafening drill and drew no protest from anyone - indeed, people ended up finding a method in his madness - some people find political logic in the symphony for an orchestra of bulldozers that was played last week in Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah under the baton of Ariel Sharon, and was broadcast on every possible newscast throughout the world. And like the permanent smile that is pasted on the actor Bomba Tsur's lips in that film, the contented smile of the digger who doesn't hear the cacophony he creates all around, the prime minister seemed, in this Sukkot holiday week, to have earplugs that cut him off from the sounds of reality. He gave a big smile (A New Evening, Channel One, Monday, 5 P.M.) to the guests in his sukka, which was adorned with cheap Christmas decorations, asked the photographer to immortalize him embracing the "girls" (women from the Christian Supporters of Israel association), noted down requests from new-immigrant soldiers and speechified to all present that Israel wants peace. The proof? The word "shalom" is perhaps the first word they learned in Hebrew.
The world was entranced by this pair of surrealistic images: on the one hand, the blades of the bulldozers digging up Ground Zero a la Ramallah; and on the other hand, the contractor of the demolition work himself orating, between the glittering baubles, about the origin of the word "shalom." The world watched and couldn't get enough, until even the reporter on the late-night news on Switzerland's French channel, TV 5 (1 A.M.) took the trouble to translate the words one by one. I conjured up a shepherd sitting in his sukka high in the Alps and trying to figure out the meaning of the herd of patsies hovering around this bizarre figure, who will soon - husha-husha - all fall into the canal he has dug them.
`Shoot them all'
I turned on the Breeza channel of YES satellite television (Sunday, 10:30 P.M.) in the middle of the program "The New Israelis," where Dror Mishani, a disadvantaged literary researcher who is the son of a disadvantaged Knesset member from David Levy's Gesher party, was talking about Joshua Kenaz's 1986 novel "Heart Murmur" (Hitganvut Yehidim) as an Ashkenazi work that portrays the Mizrahi - a Jew of Middle Eastern descent - as "the other" (once and for all, I want someone to tell me who this "other" is that everyone talks about, from women to Arabs to gays to Mizrahim; and if there are so many "others," who are the "not-others"?).
Shaul Bibi, the host, who has probably not read the book, nodded sagely, and Mishani went on at length about the "bourgeois Mizrahiness" of his grandfather, who suffered "processes of repression that are terribly, terribly painful." He also talked about the "pathology" of one of his female colleagues at Ha'aretz (Mishani is a linguistic editor on this paper's Hebrew edition), a dark girl of Moroccan extraction. He, by contrast, looks like an Ashkenazi, but suffers none the less for it. A film for which he wrote the screenplay won a prize at Cannes. Who knows, maybe he wouldn't have won if he didn't look like an Ashkenazi?
The next day, in another program about the disadvantaged, this one called "East Wind" (Channel Two, 10:07 P.M.), the progenitor of the disadvantaged Moroccans, Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, was interviewed. He talked about "the cultural components of social action" (or the opposite: you have to be an Ashkenazi going back 10 generations to understand him). Far more direct was the group that sat in a living room beneath a large Klimt reproduction and threatened "Fishman and all the billionaires" - referring to tycoon Eliezer Fishman - "who get priliveges" (sic). The climax of the conversation was: "to take submachine guns and shoot them all in the heads" - not the Ashkenazim, heaven forbid, but the Mizrahim who have gone Ashkenazi, such as Shlomo Ben-Ami, like Dror Mishani. I myself, by the way, am a half-Mizrahi who has forgotten the taste of hawayej, may my name and memory be blotted out.
Only those who first consulted the Web site of BBC World could have known that this week's "Great Journeys" program (broadcast on Saturday at 11:10 A.M.) was going to be a 50-minute documentary about Israel. The film, entitled "End of a Love Affair," followed the British MP Gerald Kaufman (Labour), a Jew from an Orthodox family in Leeds, on a critical visit to Israel. By electing Ariel Sharon as prime minister, the country transformed the little remaining fondness for Israel that Kaufman harbored into something not far from hate. Not long ago he lashed out at Israel and the "murderer and war criminal" who heads it in a fiery speech in Parliament. He undertook the trip to Israel in order to prove that he is right.
Kaufman pours his wrath on us, on the ugly housing projects and the arid landscapes and the checkpoints and the settlements (surprisingly, Sarah, a braided settler from Manchester who lives in the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, comes across as a romantic missionary from a historical mini-series). "The idealistic Israel no longer exists," he laments, nostalgic for the country he encountered on his first visit here, in 1961. However, as often happens in testimony films, the camera shows the very opposite, namely a country filled with ideals, filled to suffocation in fact: the ideal of Hanan Ashrawi and the ideal of Ehud Barak and the ideal of the conscientious objectors (they meet with Kaufman in his hotel room); the ideal of the members of Kibbutz Gilgal in the territories, and the simple ideal of Esther and Benny Shilon, who are marrying off their son on the kibbutz lawn. Benny, a peace activist, accompanies Kaufman to Masada, and looks like he would agree with the MP's caustic criticism of Israel, but is aware of the small problem that this entails: Kaufman, unlike Benny, has somewhere else to go.
The Jew who freed Papon
If I were a French Jew, I would certainly have been personally offended by the early release of 92-year-old Maurice Papon from prison on September 18. This anti-Semitic war criminal - he served only three years in prison for his crimes of sending people to Auschwitz - not only insisted that he be taken through the main gate of the facility, he also strode out erect and with vigor, belying the medical opinion that portrayed him as mortally ill, his life hanging by a thread. Do French judges show the same consideration for other prisoners, too?
These and other issues were discussed trenchantly on Albert Chabot's program (France 2, Monday, 12:05 A.M.), where it was noted that Papon actually owes his early release (he had been sentenced to a 10-year term) to a Jew, namely France's health minister, Bernard Kouchner, who sponsored the law obliging the release of prisoners who are found to be terminally ill, though he didn't imagine that the first to benefit from the legislation would be this bureaucrat of murder.
Kouchner bemoaned this on the program, expressing a general lament for France's failure to face up to the Vichy past. One could doubt the sincerity of this smooth-talking official, as a Jewish attorney, Thierry Levy, hinted. Sitting opposite the minister, he assailed what the other participants, too, called the "dual morality" of the French justice system, which needed 21 years to remember to try Papon. At least two lifers who fell mortally ill in prison did not receive the same treatment as Papon: they are two terrorists from the left-wing Action Direct group, who were kept in total isolation for years. One of them went mad and the other is half-paralyzed. Their requests for release on medical grounds were rejected time after time.
Emile Zola, root of Zionism
Europe this week began celebrating the centenary of the death of the French writer Emile Zola, which occurs on September 28. This is the Zola of "J'accuse," the article that forced the French judicial system to reopen the Dreyfus case and exonerate the Jewish captain. And, as we all know, the Dreyfus trial, and the anti-Semitism it engendered, are at the root of the creation of Zionism, and indirectly of the State of Israel. What is Israeli television doing in connection with Zola? Nothing. As openers, Germany's SAT 3 channel this week broadcast Claude Berri's 1993 film "Germinal" (Friday, 11:30 P.M.), which is based on Zola's socialist novel about coal miners and stars Gerard Depardieu. Arte (Monday, 9:40 P.M.) showed Jean Renoir's classic of 1938, "La Bete Humaine" (The Human Beast), which is adapted from a Zola novel about a fatal love triangle, and is these days the subject of much psychoanalytical interpretation.
The fastidious will argue that Zola was not a great writer. He was certainly a great man, who to a certain degree sacrificed his life for democracy. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery: there are reasons for thinking that he died of gas asphyxiation in his room at the hands of his ideological enemies. Next week France's TV 5 will salute him with a series of films: Jean Vidal's "Zola" (1954), the first chapter in a new series based on the novel "Nana," and Roger Vadim's 1966 film "La Curee" (English title: "The Game Is Over"), based on a Zola novel. All of this can be enjoyed only by speakers of French; the others can wait.
A suburb of Munich
Viewers could find a soft-spoken, very lyrical response to the crudity with which certain representatives of the Mizrahim claim a monopoly on being uprooted in a film by Tami Gross and Yuval Cohen that was shown on Arte (Saturday, 1 A.M.), "One Two Three, Hitler Comes from Germany" (the French title: "Ma Terre Etranger," or My Strange Land). In the film, Gross, an Israeli journalist, tries to return to her German roots, but encounters total alienation. The most powerful image in the film shows her standing like a mourner among grooms in the heart of the joyous festivities at the carnival in Cologne: her body language says more cogently than a thousand words that she has no connection to this ululating mass, today or ever.
In a private apartment she meets a few former Israelis from the young generation who have chosen to live in Germany: a lawyer, a physician, a photographer and a historian. The two men and two women tell her curious anecdotes about the difficulties and misunderstanding they encountered when those they live among discovered that they are Jewish. At the same time, they would not exchange Germany for any other country, because they have a good life there and they feel that their presence there can make a contribution to strengthening the country's democracy and eradicating racism.
Gross travels with the historian Michael Wolfson by train to Dachau, which is now just a suburb of Munich. An official at the camp's archive opens a notebook for them, in which they immediately find the name of Wolfson's grandfather and his family. One of the names is slightly misspelled, and the archivist explains that the mistake is probably due to the heavy load of transports that day.